So what is Vodka, anyhow? Most people don’t realize that Vodka can be made from something “other than” potatoes. In fact, Vodka can be distilled from the alcohol of any fermented sugar, regardless of whether those sugars came from: potatoes, grains, vegetables, or, yes, even grapes!
Okay…so what it is?
Short answer: Vodka is alcohol that has been distilled to 95% purity, AND passed through a charcoal (carbon) filter. So, as far as the US is concerned, as long as it’s distilled to 190 proof (95% alcohol) and charcoal filtered, you can call it Vodka.
The US Code of Federal Regulation (“CFR”) dictates what a spirit may, and may not, be called in the US based on specific criteria. This mainly has to do with: (a) what the spirit was made from (the source ingredient such as corn, barley, or grape); (b) how it was distilled (and who distilled it – more on this later); and (c) how it was aged (if at all).
The CFR hierarchy breaks the definition of different spirits down into two main fields: “CLASS” and “TYPE”.
- Think of the “CLASS” as a “category”. Whiskey, Brandy, Gin – these are all categories (or “classes”).
- So then the “type” of spirit is a more specific kind within a class. For example, Scotch and Bourbon are both Whiskeys – whiskey is the class, Scotch or Bourbon are different “types” of Whiskey. And yes, Whiskey is generally spelled with an “e” in the US, and “whisky” (without the “e”) in places like Scotland. But the US doesn’t mandate any particular spelling, so don’t get too rippled over it.
According to this breakdown, Vodka then is actually a kind (type) of spirit in a class of spirits known as “neutral alcohol” or “neutral spirits”.
- CLASS: Neutral Spirits.
- Definition: Spirits distilled from any material at or above 95% alcohol by volume (190 proof), and if bottled, bottled at not less than 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof)
- TYPE: Vodka
- Definition: Neutral spirits distilled or treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials so as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color
So there you have it – and that’s all she wrote…right?
Ah, but the story doesn’t end there.
What if the distillery started with say, someone else’s Neutral Alcohol (a “CLASS”), and then re-distilled and charcoal filtered it into Vodka (a “TYPE” of Neutral Spirit)? Enter the “Commodity Statement” .. and this is where things get sticky.
According to the government, there are two primary ways of distilling:
- Original Distillation: the distillery took a fermented product like a “distillers beer” beer (fermented grains, potatoes, etc) or wine (made from grapes, apples, pears, etc.), put it into the still, and extracted the alcohol to make a spirit
- Redistillation: the distillery took a spirit (which another distillery produced by ORIGINAL DISTILLATION), put it into the still, and basically “re-extracted” the alcohol to make a new spirit.
According to the CFR, if the distillery used someone ELSE’S alcohol and re-distilled it for the purpose of making vodka, it has to have a special commodity statement to identify it as such. In other words, the fine-print on the label would need to read something like
“______% NEUTRAL SPIRITS DISTILLED FROM __________”
- example: 100% Neutral Spirits Distilled From Corn
- example: 100% Neutral Spirits Distilled From Grape
- ______% __________NEUTRAL SPIRITS”
- example: 100% Corn Neutral Spirits
- example: 100% Grape Neutral Spirits
How, and why, does this matter?
Well, if say 50 distilleries are buying Neutral Spirit from the same manufacturer, redistilling it and charcoal filtering it, they’re still starting with the exact same base components as the rest of the distilleries that purchased the Neutral Alcohol from said supplier. Which means that their final product differs only in which parts of the original spirit they kept, and which parts they discarded or distilled/filtered out.
Whereas a distillery that begins with grains, potatoes, or – in our case – grapes, is going to begin with a completely unique base “distillers beer” or “wine”. This base alcohol is going to reflect the fermentation expertise, the unique flavors and aromas, of the beer or wine. And, upon distillation, the final spirit will be completely different from one distillery to another: they both began with different base alcohols with different characteristics, and from that, distilled completely different spirits from one another.
Where do your spirits come from? Here’s a hint:
If the label reads “Distilled from Grape” or “Distilled from Corn”, that means the distillery began with (grape, corn, etc.), fermented it themselves, then distilled it themselves.
Questions? Leave a comment or reach out via email!